Darjeeling: Darjeeling’s best known product—the leaves that make the champagne of all teas—could be the worst casualty of an indefinite shutdown the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) plans to enforce in the hill district starting Monday evening.
“If it continues for a prolonged period, say beyond 10 days, we will be hit hard,” said Vijay Parmar, adviser to the Chamong Group, which runs 13 tea gardens in the Darjeeling hills.
The shutdown is part of a campaign by the GJM for a separate state for ethnic Gurkhas in the hill areas around Darjeeling, where tourists flock in the summers to escape the burning heat of the plains.
A transport blockade planned by the GJM as part of the campaign would almost certainly halt the movement of processed tea from the hills to the markets in the plains, although GJM general secretary Roshan Giri says the organization will spare schools and tea gardens from the shutdown.
“Fine, picking and manufacturing may not be stopped by the GJM, but what about the processed tea?” wondered Parmar. “Will it continue to sit here while buyers shift their attention elsewhere?”
Darjeeling tea is one of India’s best known commodity exports. The district annually produces about 10 million kg of tea, mostly for export. Tea Board chairman Basudev Banerjee told Reuters last week that India risks losing some export markets “if the situation doesn’t improve”.
On the edge: Happy Valley tea estate in Darjeeling. Shortage of coal, needed to process leaves, has the planters worried as they desperately try to stock up before Monday evening, when the shutdown begins. (Indranil Bhoumik / Mint)
The leaves being picked in the 87 Darjeeling tea plantations now are of the so-called second-flush variety harvested in June, which makes for an aromatic, full-bodied beverage, according to Sandeep Mukherjee, secretary of the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA).
The first flush is harvested in mid-March.
“Foreign buyers usually wait with bated breath for this tea,” said Mukherjee. “This year, we lost out on foreign orders for the first flush, which typically sells at around Rs2,000 a kg, as Easter came before the leaves were ready,” said Parmar. “Foreign buyers usually buy first flush before Easter.”
“Now, even the second flush seems headed for trouble,” said Mukherjee.
DTA has around 70 gardens affiliated to it. On average, these gardens produce 8 million kg of tea every year and employ more than 50,000 permanent workers.
“There are twice as many temporary workers,” he said. “How will we pay these people their salaries and wages if we aren’t able to sell the tea?” wondered Parmar.
The GJM, which has expanded quickly after its formation in October, doesn’t have a direct foothold in the gardens. “It’s piggy-backing on an All Gorkha Students’ Union-affiliated outfit, the Himalayan Planters and Workers’ Union,” said a planter, sitting in the portico of the Raj-era Planters’ Club in Darjeeling. “But, these chaps wield a lot of clout and have nuisance value,” said the planter, who declined to be named.
“What a students union was doing in tea gardens is anyone’s guess, but then, this is Darjeeling,” he said. “They have asked us not to pay electricity bills to the state electricity board and telephone bills to Bharat Sanchar Nigam.”
Apparently, the GJM has even asked gardens not to pay the annual lease rent paid to the state government. “We had already made the payment this year, but next year may be a different story.”
More than the dispatch of processed tea, what has the planters of Darjeeling worried is the shortage of coal needed to process tea leaves as they desperately try to stock up before Monday evening.
According to Parmar, to process ! kg of tea leaves, 2.5kg of coal is needed. “With each garden producing 1,200kg of leaves every day on average, three tonnes of coal are required.” And with stocks dwindling, they have barely enough to hold out for 10 days. “After that if we don’t get fresh coal stocks, the tea leaves will simply pile up and rot or will have to be left on the bushes,” Parmar said.
A shutdown called by anti-Gorkhaland parties in Siliguri on Thursday and Friday threw the tea gardens’ restocking schedule out of gear. “We’ve got just the weekend to rush up as much coal and rations as we can,” says Mukherjee.
Inspector-general of police (North Bengal) Kundan Lal Tamta said the police had no plans to offer security to trucks ferrying tea down from the hills to the plains. Planters “should try and impress upon (GJM president) Bimal Gurung to let them pass unhindered,” he said.
And the planters are doing just that. “I don’t think we can expect much help from the government,” said Parmar. “At some stage, we’ll have to talk to Mr Gurung to let us bring up coal and rations and send the tea down in the same trucks.”